By our Lord’s obedient life and death, our state of enmity has been removed. As a result, we have been restored and reconciled to a state of renewed covenant fellowship with our Creator-Redeemer God, which has now brought us peace with and access to God, and all the benefits of the glorious new creation. All of this understanding requires penal substitution to make sense of it.
We continue in this post to think through the Bible’s rich, multifaceted, and glorious description and interpretation of Christ’s cross. Scripture is clear: the central meaning of Christ’s cross, indeed the rationale for why our Lord Jesus Christ, God the Son incarnate, died for us was “for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3). On this point, the entire church agrees. But beyond this basic affirmation, sadly, people have not always agreed on how best to understand the all-important phrase, “for our sins,” hence different theologies of atonement.
Our contention is that if we investigate all the ways that Scripture describes the cross and we do so by placing its description in the Bible’s framework, storyline, and covenantal unfolding, then the best understanding of the meaning and achievement of the cross is the theological view of penal substitution.
Why Penal Substitution?
Why penal substitution? At least two reasons can be given.
First, theologically, penal substitution best accounts for why the divine Son had to die and why he alone can save. In fact, it best captures the serious and horrendous nature of the human problem, namely our sin before God, and why our only hope is in God’s sovereign grace to save. Penal substitution, unlike other interpretations of the cross, takes sin and God seriously and places God at the center of all things, including our salvation. It underscores the fact that our triune God planned our redemption from eternity and achieved it on the stage of human history. It reminds us that for image-bearers who have sinned against the eternal, self-sufficient, holy, and righteous God of the universe to be justified, we need a divine Redeemer to stand in our place and to satisfy his own righteous demand against us. Apart from the enfleshment of God’s eternal Son and his dying on a cross for our salvation, there is no other way to stand justified before God. Indeed, penal substitution reminds us that from beginning to end, God alone must not only act to redeem us, but thankfully, he has acted in power and grace to provide, achieve, and accomplish our salvation by the Father’s initiative, in and through the Son, and by the Spirit.
Second, biblically, penal substitution best accounts for all of the biblical data regarding the cross. As we think of the eight ways that Scripture interprets and explains the meaning and significance of Christ’s death for us (e.g., obedience, sacrifice, propitiation, redemption, reconciliation, justice/justification, victory, and moral example), we discover that these eight ways do not diverge but instead converge, and converge around the view of penal substitution.
So far, we have seen this by looking at the first four words and concepts. To speak of Christ’s death as an act of “obedience” is to present him as the Last Adam, our new covenant head, who by his active and passive obedience secures our justification (Rom. 5:12–21). Yet, his act of obedience is as our great High Priest who offers himself as a “propitiatory sacrifice” for our sins (Heb. 2:5–18; 5:1–10; cf. Rom. 3:21–16). And as our covenant head and representative, by his atoning sacrifice, Christ has not only satisfied God’s wrath and judgment against us, he has also bought us back from the bondage to sin as our great Redeemer by the cost of his own life by his shed blood on the cross (Rom. 3:24–25; Gal. 3:13; 4:4–5; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:13–14; 1 Pet. 1:18–19). One cannot make sense of how the Bible interprets the cross on its own terms, without saying that the central reason why the divine Son died for us is best explained by penal substitution.
In this post, we now turn to the fifth way that Christ’s cross is interpreted in Scripture, namely, as an act of “reconciliation.” And what we will see again is that like the previous biblical words and concepts that Scripture uses to interpret Christ’s cross, “reconciliation” cannot be made sense of apart from penal substitution. Let us now turn to the word, concept, and theme of “reconciliation” as another way Scripture interprets Christ’s death for us.
Christ’s Cross and Our Reconciliation
Our Lord’s death on the cross is described and interpreted as the place where “reconciliation” is achieved and by which a variety of crucial relationships are restored.